The collective moment when I first saw a three-dimensional reflection of my own college experience in popular culture happened not once but twice: on the television series “A Different World,” which premiered in 1987, and in Spike Lee’s film “School Daze,” which debuted in 1988. Together, they presented a meditation on the many layers and complexities of Black campus life that I had not seen before.
The magic for me wasn’t in particular characters as much as it was in the plot lines and the elements of culture imported from H.B.C.U.s, or historically Black colleges and universities. These recognizable moments from my own experience — campuses filled with students who celebrated the diversity of Black culture; the Greek steppers whose chants and thunderous stomps filled the gym; the homecomings that felt more like a family reunion — could have been plucked from any of the more than 100 H.B.C.U. campuses across the country, including my alma mater, Florida A&M University (FAMU).
When they appeared more than 30 years ago, “A Different World” and “School Daze” harnessed the power of familiarity and affirmation — and marked one of the first big moments of visibility for H.B.C.U.s in mainstream culture.
Finally, I thought, a defining chapter in the lives of so many Black Americans was being told in a big, big way. Finally, our H.B.C.U. history and inheritance, our legacy and sense of belonging, were being mined for storytelling.
Finally, we saw ourselves.
Over the decades, what began as sporadic nods to Black campus experiences has grown into more: portrayals that are both authentic and that challenge stereotypes about H.B.C.U. college life. While there is room for more — and more varied — narratives, in 2022 it is no longer an anomaly to see a television show set at an H.B.C.U., or an H.B.C.U. marching band featured in a music video or commercial, or a real-life celebrity or athlete wearing H.B.C.U.-branded apparel.
Earlier this year, the CW network released “March,” an eight-episode docuseries about the marching band at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. The CW’s new show “All American: Homecoming,” a spinoff of the popular “All American,” takes place at the fictional Bringston College in Atlanta, which is home to several real-life H.B.C.U.s.
“This just felt like an organic opportunity where I can extend what we’re doing on ‘All American’ and explore a whole new different world of Blackness at an older, broader level,” Nkechi Okoro Carroll, the showrunner for “All American: Homecoming,” said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, adding, “It’s time that people understand we’re worthy of being the ‘A’ story, the H.B.C.U. experience is worthy of being the ‘A’ story.”
In the fashion world, Ralph Lauren used the vintage finery worn by students at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges between the 1920s and the 1950s as inspiration for his new capsule clothing collection, developed in collaboration with the schools and released in March.
And in one of the biggest nods by one of the biggest stars, Beyoncé incorporated the high-stepping electricity of an H.B.C.U. marching band and the iconography of Black Greek life into her historic headlining performance at Coachella in 2018, which came to be nicknamed Beychella. (The performance was documented in “Homecoming,” a behind-the-scenes concert film on Netflix.) The unmistakable sound (her band included performers who had marched in H.B.C.U. bands), the precision choreography, the call-and-response chants, the unwavering spirit — the performance was every bit a visible and visceral celebration of deeply rooted H.B.C.U. traditions.
“This feels like a very new and different moment around the acceptance and visibility and pop-cultural representation of H.B.C.U.s,” said Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American studies at Duke University.
Will Packer, a top filmmaker and a graduate of FAMU, has both witnessed and contributed to the rise in visibility of H.B.C.U.s. He also remembered the one-two punch of “A Different World” and “School Daze” as his own meaningful introduction to seeing H.B.C.U. life onscreen.
“That was the first time I saw those images and was able to really process them in a way that said, Oh, this is a real place,” said Mr. Packer, whose producing credits include “Ride Along” and “Straight Outta Compton.” Seeing those early depictions, he said, was “not just something fresh out of Hollywood but someplace I can have access to.”
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